Barbara Hinterplattner | PhD Candidate, Department of Translation Studies, University of Graz

The rise of xenophobic discourses and their effect on EU legislation

Imagine you work as a simultaneous interpreter in a sound-proof booth in the European Parliament. Many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) rely on your service. In the last few years, however, you have had to interpret speeches about “vast flows of migration into Europe” or “huge numbers of people illegally coming into Europe”, ending with statements such as “we have to close our borders”. How would you render these statements into your native language in real time?

This scenario has become a reality for many interpreters over the past few years, as xenophobic discourses have become more and more predominant in politics. Discourse strategies used by speakers include, but are not limited to, denying the xenophobic content of their speeches by starting with a disclaimer saying they are not racist (van Dijk, 2000, pp. 542f.), or stoking fear of mass immigration (Wahl, 2018, p.23). Expressions such as “tidal waves of migrants” who “want to take over”, sadly, seem to have found their way into the mainstream political discourse.

Discourses, in turn, influence legislation. This applies especially to the European Parliament (EP), one of the key players in EU legislation. The ordinary legislative procedure, which covers areas such as immigration, gives the same weight to the European Parliament as to the European Council (European Parliament). Immigration laws negotiated in the European Parliament have a direct impact on the destiny of thousands of people coming to Europe.

What exactly is the role of the interpreters in this scenario?

These multilingual negotiations are interpreted by simultaneous interpreters who thus play a role in propagating discourses across language barriers. In the process, they have to choose how to render the ideas of the speaker. Yet, this choice is not always an easy one, especially if the content of the speech is xenophobic in nature. Debates among professional interpreters and translators on this topic have found their way into the media in the wake of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. Trump’s controversial, xenophobic statements left many interpreters struggling to find the right words (e.g. Spiegel Online, 2017).

In the debate that unfolded over the years that followed, various suggestions were made by interpreters themselves on how to render politically incorrect or racist statements. Some suggested mitigating if in doubt, in order to avoid making mistakes. After all, conference interpreters can be held liable for mistranslations, as one EP interpreter pointed out. Another seasoned EP interpreter said in an interview that he sometimes tended to overcompensate xenophobic statements “to prevent [his] own convictions from showing through” (Lins, 2004). One could also argue that interpreters contribute to the democratic debate precisely by rendering each and every point of view, even the ones they find unacceptable. This is illustrated by another example from the EP. When some interpreters expressed their wish not to interpret the members of the then newly elected Front National, they were told that they had to accept all assignments or else they would not be recruited anymore (Donovan, 2011, pp.118f.).

Translational norms stipulating the invisibility and impartiality of simultaneous interpreters are still endorsed by many interpreters in theory, as surveys have shown (Zwischenberger, 2015). In practice, on the other hand, things are different. Studies of simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament have shown that, far from being invisible, EU interpreters are active agents in the communication process (Beaton, 2007). They employ strategies such as strengthening or mitigating face-threatening acts (Bartłomiejczyk, 2016), that is, remarks that MEPs use to embarrass or insult other MEPs. They also use varying strategies when interpreting statements to which the audience or the media reacted adversely (Bartłomiejczyk, 2019).

Ethical issues to be explored in the PhD project

The ethical issues this kind of speeches raise are manifold. One aspect considered here is values. The core values of the European Union are enshrined in its treaties. They are, among others, respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights, “including the rights of persons belonging to minorities” (Art. 2 TEU).

IATE, the EU terminology database, which is designed by EU terminologists and destined for use by EU interpreters, also has a role to play in this regard. It not only contains performance instructions for EU translators and interpreters which partly refer to the EU’s core values, but it also uses four tags to evaluate its entries: preferredadmitteddeprecated and obsoletePreferred marks a term as most suitable for EU texts; admitted means a term is technically correct, but there are better synonyms; deprecated indicates that a term should not be used; and obsolete marks a term which was previously used but which is outdated (Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union, p. 21). If interpreters decide to use a term that is marked as deprecated or degrading in the EU’s terminology database, this can be considered a conscious decision, especially if IATE offers alternative solutions. Furthermore, the target language audience would likely also notice that the original speaker used a term that is degrading, since the interpreter chose a target language term that is publicly marked as degrading as well.

A preliminary study of eight Hungarian speeches and their interpretations into English and German showed that interpreters tend to follow the performance instructions found in IATE. Moreover, the study also suggests that the interpreters tend to strengthen xenophobic lines of argument more often than other lines of argument. This tendency warrants further study.

Other questions that will also be explored in the course of the PhD project are: Is there any evidence of conflicting values, and if so, which values do the interpreters prioritise in the spur of the moment? Which patterns can be found in the way interpreters render xenophobic discourses? Which ethical theories are useful in further defining the role and the possible influence of the simultaneous interpreter? The PhD project tries to answer these questions by analysing a corpus consisting of 100 EP speeches on the topic of migration in English, German, French and Hungarian, and their corresponding interpretations, totalling 400 texts.